Is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film, Marnie a sex story? a mystery? a detective story? a romance? a story of a thief? a love story? The many questions posed in the trailer are curiosities that film scholars and audiences continue to grapple with to this day, over 50 years since a release that saw Hitchcock’s Marnie greeted with poor box office returns and widespread bewilderment from critics. As mirrored in Film Society Lincoln Center‘s 35mm screening of the film this past September, it has become commonplace, decades after the film’s lackluster premiere, to champion Marnie as the director’s most sophisticated and underrated work—what many consider his “definitive late-career masterpiece”—whose once-denigrated cinematic expressionism and the panned performance of Tippi Hedren have since emerged as points of misunderstood excellence.
This is easy to understand—on a visual and technical level, the film is a wonder to behold, and Hedren’s performance is undoubtedly extraordinary. But in the vitally important age of #MeToo, in which we find ourselves as a collective culture reassessing and deconstructing abusive and sexist power structures in the production of media, we can no longer accept and praise
Marnie as Hitchcock intended us to: as the story of a woman in need of being “cured”. One way we can allow Marnie to, if you will, exist morally in our time, is to understand the film as a self-unaware but ultimately tragic pop cultural encapsulation of utter misogyny, and reassign power and solidarity to a female protagonist far too long taken to be a villain.
Marnie on Paper
Hitchcock’s follow-up to The Birds sees his star discovery of the former in the title role of Margaret “Marnie” Edgar, a habitual thief and con artist who assumes different identities and robs her employers to make a living. Marnie is clearly dealing with mental illness, as manifested through her fear of thunderstorms and the color red. More alarming is her relationship with her mother, Bernice (Louise Latham), whose only purpose in the film seems to be telling Marnie to avoid men. It is the male specimen that ultimately sets Marnie into dramatic motion, however, with the misfortune of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), Marnie’s latest boss. Romantically and sexually enamored with her from the get-go, he later becomes proprietary of her when he blackmails her into marriage after learning of her criminal activity.
Instead of turning her into the police, Mark finds intrigue in Marnie’s transgressions, and aims to “cure her”, using his power and privilege to learn of her repressed past. Marnie’s repulsion at Mark’s touch, specifically following their wedding night when he rapes her, culminates in the film’s rain-soaked climax in Bernice’s Baltimore apartment. There, Marnie regresses to a childlike state and relives the horror of the past that has caused her such inexplicable agony. Spoiler: Bernice was a sex worker.
One night she believed her male client was trying to molest her young daughter and subsequently attacked him. When he retaliated violently, young Marnie grabbed a fireplace poker and shattered his skull with it, the resulting mass of blood sparking her fear of the color red, and more importantly of men. This regression into childhood trauma somehow proves cathartic, and Marnie ultimately decides to resume her relationship with Mark.
Critics on Marnie
The plot of Marnie is puzzling on paper to begin with, so as a viewing experience it’s an even greater peculiarity, melding stylistic brilliance with a screenplay that both intimately involves an audience and simultaneously keeps it at arm’s length. When one peels back the layers, greater truths that transcend Hitchcock’s vision of his universe can be discovered. And yet, Marnie continues to receive fond treatment for all the wrong reasons.
We praise the dialogue and diss its original reception as being archaic and hampered with misunderstanding. For example, the sentiment of Pauline Kael’s contemporaneous negative opinion is viewed with disdain: “Pauline Kael thought the Master of Suspense was scraping bottom with this tale of a kleptomaniac married to a businessman with psychiatric aspirations,” while the late Robin Wood is continually upheld as an eminent Hitchcock expert, the same Robin Wood who would go as far to say: “disliking [Marnie] boiled down to disliking cinema.” (Fernard F. Croce, Slant Magazine, 17 Feb 2006). But was Pauline Kael’s disdain for the film really fueled by the reasons we think? Marnie is important as a work of cinema in a stylistic sense, as are all Hitchcock films, and this should not be forgotten Wood and others certainly won’t let us forget it. Maybe Kael already understood this. Perhaps she was not suggesting that Hitchcock was “scraping the bottom” in an aesthetic or technical sense with this film, but in a sexual and moral context. (More on this later).
At its core, the three points of Marnie‘s dramatic triangle denote the alluring but troubled temptress (Marnie Edgar), the suave male savior (Mark Rutland), and the shrewish foil who has caused all of the trouble in the first place (Marnie’s mother, Bernice). Hitchcock builds Mark as the “American aristocrat”, an archetype that comes to embody and enshrine social, economic, and sexual power, and lends these qualities a handsome facade through the charisma and star power of Sean Connery, fresh out of Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962). Subsequently, Hitchcock crafts Bernice as the troubled mother and former sex worker harboring a dark secret, with the intent of creating an archetype that conveys how female sexual deviance ultimately results in catastrophic fallout. And with Marnie, we can see Hitchcock’s desire to portray a sexually-attractive but troubled woman in need of saving. In real life he found in Tippi Hedren a sexually-attractive woman “trapped” in the profession of modeling whom he believe he “saved” from obscurity and brought into the limelight—and later abused—not unlike the character of Marnie is abused by her husband.
One would be hard-pressed to challenge this vision, as immediate proof of it can be found on even the most superficial level: the film’s marketing. One poster shows Marnie and Mark on either side of a split canvas, with a quote from Marnie reading: “You don’t love me…I’m just some kind of wild animal you’ve trapped!,” and a quote from Mark responding: “That’s right Marnie, I’ve caught you, and by heaven I’m going to keep you!”
Through the cultivation of a pet-and-owner relationship, Hitchcock constructs a dynamic of subordination. He has packaged and repurposed abuse into a pill we can swallow and can do so because of his influence and omniscience as a successful auteur. By 1964, no one is in a position to question Hollywood’s most famous director. Another one-sheet shows “heroic” Mark literally chasing after “sinful” Marnie and tearing open her dress against her will.
Without shame, we have accepted glamorization of sexual violence in a way that takes Hitchcock’s motivations and normalizes, even fetishizes, them. Marnie, despite being the protagonist and titular character, becomes not the point of identification but the point of grotesque examination, objectification even. And on every print, Bernice — perhaps the most pivotal character in the entire film — is nowhere to be found. Her absence comes to symbolize the suppression of anyone or anything that could potentially derail Mark’s power over Marnie. His domination of her — socially, economically, psychologically, and sexually — satiates the ultimate patriarchal fantasy. And in 1964, audiences were not willing to question or defy such a system of power.
So, Hitchcock’s vision wins. Watch the film, though, and notice how intrinsically we are repulsed at these archetypes pushed on us by the director, our emotions and intellect taking us to a different place. Hitchcock underestimated his audience, both then and now, as over the course of its runtime, we as viewers discover ourselves outsmarting his constructs.
But in 1964, the power of the Male over the Female is only natural… right? Marnie is fascinating in this way, released just as the studio system was dying out and the counterculture was taking hold. The fabric of second-wave feminism was being sewn simultaneous with a director still clinging to the problematic values of his generation and the production system he had worked in for decades. So perhaps the farrago of critical awkwardness and derision surrounding Marnie is a result of an America not yet enlightened enough to call out Hitchcock, but an America nonetheless feeling the ground shaking.
Hitchcock subscribes to an agenda of oppression, and in 1964, we can neither wholly submit to this nor feel empowered enough yet to speak out against it. In turn, we rebel against him by attacking the one thing we can — the craft itself. But when the reputation of the craft is rehabilitated years later — as is the case with Marnie — what is there left to derail? The answer: the constructs and motivations that so define, even more than command of craft, Hitchcock’s enigmatic auteurism.
For example, we are taught to accept Mark as the debonair savior. But as the narrative unravels, we discover that Mark is actually a pervert who uses his said power to dominate Marnie into repression in order to “cure” her in response to her seemingly criminal behaviors. He is the microcosm for the ages-old desire to “own” and “tame” the female, without realizing that what has driven her to such behaviors were the destructive actions of a man from her past that Mark is now engaging in.
We are also taught to accept Bernice as the icy shrew. Even with Hitchcock’s choice to cast Louise Latham, a then-unknown actress with whom the American moviegoing public could find little sense of familiarity or identification, a sense of alienation is cultivated. This feeling, coupled with her character’s slim screen-time, seldom allows the audience to understand Bernice from more diverse angles. But if we take a moment to examine Bernice alternately and more sympathetically, we can find in her character a woman of her own sexual agency, shamed by the social doctrine, who tried to protect her daughter from sexual predation and was still indicted by society for it.
And we are taught to accept Marnie as the troubled object of sexualization in need of saving. But if we can let Marnie exist for a moment outside of the context of the male figure that ultimately, unfortunately, defines her, a far more nuanced image of the title character emerges. We can instead view Marnie as a woman who, in the wake of childhood trauma, engages in criminal behavior as a coping mechanism. Her conning of men results from her clever creation of the “ideal woman”, despite her livelihood, and men’s destructive behavior, defining her. Trapped in a misogynistic patriarchal power system, she must try to forge her own resolution, but is forced to do so in the wake of a man’s destructive behavior (when Mark rapes her on their wedding night), even as she tries subverting and escaping the destructive behavior of men from the beginning.
Marnie attempts to derail The Man by both intriguing him through her kleptomaniac behaviors (Mark certainly finds her robberies sexually appealing), and then infuriating him by exacting those behaviors against him. But in the eyes of The Man, Marnie is not just stealing their material goods. She is stealing their power. Perhaps Hitchcock and the character of Mark felt that the only way to reclaim this “stolen” power was through the reassertion of the type of control that Marnie, ultimately, could not steal — their sexual control of her.
Sexual control is a critical and problematic point with both Marnie and Hitchcock. One cannot have discourse about the film without discussing Hitchcock’s real-life abuse of Tippi Hedren, and in turn the divided cultural consensus about how to grapple with Hitchcock’s wrongdoings is a major contributing factor to the problematic nature of our appreciation of Marnie. Even with the current dialogue being cognizant of Hitchcock’s sexual harassment of Hedren—and even with the recognition how his male gaze, both in general and toward his lead actress, parallels the film’s treatment and ultimate destructiveness of the title character—we still somehow do not allow these facts to rightfully taint our current veneration of the film, nor exist as a reason to hate it.
The aforementioned retrospective read, as recent as 2006, even sometimes submits to this unfortunate narrative, noting that “the director contribute[s] to the perception through the gaze of [his] camera, and Hedren, being the unreachable object of Hitchcock’s obsession, brings a particular sense of masochistic revolt to the role” [ibid] while still allowing this recognized presence of Hitchcock’s toxic nature and male gaze to exist as one of the reasons we should praise the film: “Marnie (Hedren) is first seen walking away from us, dressed in dark gray while holding a fragrantly yellow bag in an empty train station, a stunning example of the way Hitchcock’s camera could create visual poetry out of simply following people around.” [ibid] Here, visual poeticism and the objectification of women are joined in synonymy, and Hitchcock’s problematic gaze is resultantly condoned.
This is why pedagogical responsibility is so crucial in the celebration of problematic works like Marnie and, as a result, the majority of the Hitchcock filmography. Unfortunately, pedagogical corruption can be found more easily than responsibility. The Netflix docuseries The Keepers, which explores the unsolved 1969 murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, is indicative of this, and in many ways a bombshell that conveys our collective veneration of Hitchcock’s male gaze in action. The same priests of Archbishop Keough High School who terrorized and raped countless young women and remain the prime suspects of the murder of Cesnik (who, prior to her death was only moments away from exposing the abuse) felt it necessary to include viewings of Marnie in their curriculum, persuading the young women to “avoid being like Marnie” and “seek therapy” with them in the same way Marnie must unwillingly seek “therapy” with her rapist husband. In other words: buy into Hitchcock’s gaze, and systemic abuse is reinforced in the real world. Life suddenly—and all too frighteningly—espouses and imitates art.
So how do we allow Marnie to exist without being complicit to its toxic coloration by the male gaze? Over a half-century since this film (and countless others) saw the light of day, and over 30 years since Hitchcock’s passing, we are finally granted control as to how to fathom and put forward the texts — literary, cinematic, or otherwise — that have been fed to us. As an audience, we now become the ultimate auteurs, and while the text itself cannot change, our understanding of it, and the meaning we apply to it, is pliable. Thus, we achieve this by re-assigning our appreciation and understanding in different areas, taking the megaphone away from the monster and placing it in different hands—specifically those of Marnie, the character. Marnie Edgar is, after all, painted as the “issue” and her male lead is conveyed as the “fixer”. But it is she whom we ultimately sympathize with and root for—it is she for whom we shed tears, even as she enters Mark’s car during the final frame. But Marnie is not merely entering a car, she is entering a state of submission, specifically to the male savior.
Furthermore, Marnie and Bernice might have confronted their demons, but because it was the destructive gaze of The Male that forcibly propelled them to that confrontation, they are only more demonized. Except now, they have no agency left whatsoever—The Male has stripped them even of this—leaving them in a state of submissive, catatonic alienation. Marnie is clay in Mark’s hands as she chooses to continue pursuing her relationship with him, and Bernice is what Marnie would have become had she not been “saved” by The Male. After all, Bernice has spent her whole life rejecting The Male, and nearly emerged from the smog, and yet The Male ultimately intervened. Thus, she has now become what he sees fit—no longer an object of examination or sexualization—but as something purely disposable.
It is by no coincidence that the film ends with Bernice alone in her apartment, and with Marnie in the hands of the predator. In Hitchcock’s eyes, this is the ultimate happy ending. But we can see, now, that it is the ultimately tragic message about the society we live in, a cyclical society that sexualizes, hates, and subsequently discards women.
As Richard Brody of The New Yorker notes in his 2012 analysis of the film, “the greatness of Hitchcock’s artistry, the musical sublimity of his images and the emotional power of his stories, isn’t separable from his carnality—rather, his greatness depends upon the worst and most bestial aspects of his character.” Brody writes that, in understanding how Marnie’s cinematic brilliance is precisely reliant on Hitchcock’s own destructive male gaze and even more destructive treatment of Tippi Hedren, it is a film “that threatens to knock Hitchcock out of his own system, and, so, the one that offers filmmakers and critics alike a way out of Hitchcockophilia.”
Sadly, running from Hitchcock and our decades-deep cultural reverence of him makes little progress, as there will always be new generations of audiences and cinephiles who will be forced to confront Marnie in the same way the young women of The Keepers Archbishop Keough were forced to confront that film with ultimately traumatic consequences. Thus, the only way to truly knock Hitchcock out of his own system, specifically regarding Marnie, is not to run from it, leaving it suspended in the ether where its patriarchal trappings can ferment. Instead, we must understand the inner workings of the male gaze and subsequently annihilate it. We must give the film new meaning and purpose that exposes and shames the director’s depraved intent—his attempt at convincing us that his narrative of a rapist and his victim is a type of socially-acceptable love story—and does the one thing Hitchcock, and The Man at large, never wanted us to do: love Marnie Edgar, and the millions of abused and disempowered women she represents.
* * *
You may also be interested in “The Three Faces of Hitchcock“, by Matt McKinzie, 24 Apr 2018
See more PopMatters articles on Hitchcock films, here.